The Red Zone Is No Longer the Dead Zone.

Posted October 25th, 2021 @ 02:10pm

There was a lot to like about Sunday's 14 point win over the WFT. The red zone issues on both sides of the ball, a talking point all week long, disappeared for one week. The defense held them to just three points on four trips (thank you Taylor Heinicke) and the offense looked a bit like last year, with Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan hitting pay dirt from inside the 20.

The defense, missing four key starters, got a career best effort from rising star Rashan Gary--his strip sack to open the third quarter was the play of the game and he was a problem all afternoon. That unit got strong efforts from Chandon Sullivan, Rasul Douglas, Kingsley Keke and the unit's MVP so far, De'Vondre Campbell. The pass rush really picked up as the game went along; Heinicke was pressured on 40% of his drop backs and the WFT converted on just 4 of 11 third downs and 1 of 4 fourth downs.

But there were plenty of things that did not go great: the defense gave up 195 yards on the ground--most concerning was allowing 95 of them to come from the quarterback. That's been a consistent problem all season and will need to be shored up with Kyler Murray looming on Thursday night. Washington's top shelf defensive line, comprised of all former #1 picks, dominated the Pack's makeshift offensive line, keeping Rodgers uncomfortable and completely neutralizing the running game. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 25 yards on just nine carries. That's not sustainable...neither is Dillon putting the ball on the ground twice.

Long term, I have zero concerns about the offense. David Bakhtiari and MVS are on the verge of returning, if not this week then the following week in Kansas City. That should open up the playbook a bit and allow LaFleur to be creative like he wants to be. Seeing Tonyan and Allen Lazard much more involved in the passing game is a good start. And can we stop for a moment and talk about the sideline catch by Davante Adams? Simply spectacular.

I don't have zero concerns about the defense, but I think they're getting better each week. True, they haven't faced a gauntlet of good QBs (Joe Burrow is really the only top 15 guy they've gone up against), but that changes now. The next five: Murray, Mahomes, Wilson (maybe), Cousins and Stafford. It would be nice to get a few of their impact guys back during this stretch, like both starting corners and Preston Smith. Adding veteran depth in Douglas, Whitney Mercilus and Jaylon Smith provides some nice health insurance. As a unit, they're tackling well, hitting hard and showing some bite. That's a good start.

Special teams continues to be a mixed bag. There was more good than bad in this game. Yes, getting a field goal blocked is never a good thing, but they did block one of their own, the kickoff coverage unit kept dangerous return man DeAndre Carter in check and punter Corey Bojorquez was a difference maker--all three of his punts tilted the field.

Six wins in a row after the week one debacle is all we could have asked for; now we'll get a better idea of where this team stands as the schedule gets a lot tougher. Hopefully, re-enforcements are on the way with the return of a couple of all pros and a few other key cogs on both sides of the ball.

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Sweet Home Chicago.

Posted October 18th, 2021 @ 01:10pm

For me, nothing is sweeter than beating the Bears. Even when the rivalry has been as one-sided as it's been since 2010, with the Pack going 20-3, to silence that obnoxious fan base puts me in my happy place.

Just like Soldier Field is Aaron Rodgers' happy place. The viral "I still own you!" clip from Rodgers' six yard touchdown scamper is the kind of meme that will live inside Bears' fans heads for quite a while, just as he and the old gunslinger have since around 1992, when the league's oldest rivalry turned into three decades of Packers domination.

And the win over the Bears was Matt LaFleur's seventh straight divisional win on the road to start his career--he's the first coach to accomplish that since 1970.

In meeting number 203, the Pack got off to a slow start, which is becoming a bit of a trend this season. But after falling behind 7-0, they settled in on both sides of the ball and slowly took over. The biggest takeaway for me is the running game, finally rounding into form these past two weeks. With Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combing for 135 yards and 5 and a half yards per carry, the Packers were able to engineer long drives and take what the defense gave them, which was daring them to run against a light box.

It meant Rodgers only needed to drop back to pass 23 times and he spread the wealth, targeting Davante Adams a season-low five times and connecting with seven teammates in the game. Nice to Allen Lazard more involved and rookie Amari Rodgers had a nice play, but I still would like to see more snaps for Randall Cobb. The Pack used Adams quite a bit in the slot in this one and maybe Cobb's time will come later in the season when (and if) the line is healthy and they don't need to worry as much about extra protection for Rodgers.

Speaking if health, this team continues to be ravaged by the injury bug. Josh Myers left early with a knee injury which did not look good and in the second half the defense was down five preferred starters: the Smiths, JaireAlexander, Kevin King and Darnell Savage. We'll wait to see if Preston's oblique injury will keep him from facing his former team on Sunday, and Savage is in the concussion protocol.

The guys that stepped in did a nice job, fortunate to be facing an offense that is a work in progress. Noticeable were pass rusher Jonathan Garvin, new corner Rasul Douglas (who replaced the torched Isaac Yiadom) and Henry Black. Early in the season the defensive line was the weak link on that side of the ball. The last couple weeks it's been a strength, with Dean Lowry suddenly ascending and Kenny Clark supplying Sunday's dagger with a pair of sacks on the Bears' final drive.

Sounding like a broken record here, but the special teams continues to be a big problem. They nearly gave up a few big kickoff returns and committed a couple of dumb penalties. The exception was Corey Bojorquez' 82 yard punt, somehow just the second longest in team history.

With five straight wins, the Pack return home to face the Washington football team, with  brutal road games looming at Arizona (on a short week) and Kansas City. Those two high flying quarterbacks will be the ultimate challenge for the defense and it would be nice to get a few of those five injured starters back.

But for a day or two, I'll think about that exasperated Bears fan base that is praying that that was the last time they'd have to face Rodgers in his home away from home. Interesting that he made it clear he didn't think it would be the last time he'd play there. Count me on the side that would be happy to see him torture them again in 2022.

Someone needs to run Buddy Guy's rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago" under the highlights of this game; maybe Rodgers could provide the lead vocals.

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Pack Avoids the Agony of Da-Feet.

Posted October 11th, 2021 @ 01:10pm

I couldn't watch the final kick. I'm not proud to admit that, but I just couldn't handle it. I walked to the other side of my house, waited a couple of minutes and then returned and saw the Cowboys-Giants game was on, so I knew Crosby had made the kick--otherwise the game would still be going on. I hit rewind and watched the kick, as my blood pressure slowly lowered.

How do you describe what we witnessed over the final three minutes of regulation and overtime? Five consecutive missed field goals with the game tied. Mason Crosby had put that nightmarish game in Detroit three years ago so far out of his mind that he had only missed four field goals since and had made 27 in a row. It shows you what tricks the mind can play, once it gets into your head.

All of the kicking craziness at the end overshadowed what was a pretty strong road performance by the Pack on both side of the ball. I was especially pleased with how the defense played, completely shutting down the passing game in the first half, until that flukey bomb caught by impressive rookie Jamarr Chase in the final minute. Joe Burrow had an eternity to make a throw and Chase had time to get behind Darnell Savage as he crossed the field. Before that play, that vaunted receiver group had been held completely in check.

The defensive line has gotten better each week, getting Kris Barnes back was huge (he looked like he wasn't ready to surrender snaps to Jaylon Smith), De'Vondre Campbell continues to be a standout and Eric Stokes was more than up to the challenge of shadowing Chase (he wasn't in coverage on the long TD pass).

The defense was solid against the run, made stud slot receiver Tyler Boyd an afterthought and impressively, surrendered just one touchdown in six possessions after halftime. Both Preston Smith and Rashan Gary continue to be disruptive. What needs to be cleaned up: the red zone. They're toothless in the red zone this season, giving up 13 TDs in 13 chances. That almost seems impossible; they're the only defense in the league without a red zone stop.

Offensively, it was the Davante Adams show. What more can you say? He's the best in the game. It would be nice to see Rodgers spread things around a little bit like he did last season, and maybe that will happen as the season plays out, but watching Rodgers and Adams cook is as good as it gets. Seeing Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon post another productive day is also a great sign. Seeing Dillon develop as a receiver is a very encouraging sign.

What's not encouraging is LaFleur's inexplicable conservative play calling in the red zone. Last year this team was nearly automatic; this year LaFleur retreats into his shell. Settling for field goals on the road is a recipe for disaster and easily could've cost the Pack the game in Cincinnati. He admitted as much after the game. Big picture, the team gained 466 yards of offense against a defense that entered the game ranked sixth in the league. And the Pack did it without three starting offensive linemen, and without MVS, whose absence changes how defenses attack the Pack.

Fortunately, the Packers still have a quarterback at the top of his game. Rodgers was terrific all afternoon, passing Phillip Rivers for fifth place on the all time touchdown list. The play of the game was the third and 16 missile to Randall Cobb on the game winning drive. The window was so tight on that play but Rodgers was on target and Cobb made the huge catch. It set up fourth and inches and I figured they would keep the offense on the field and not ask Crosby to come back out and try a 49 yarder. But Crosby assured LaFleur that he would make it and that was good enough for the head coach. I would have handed it to Dillon and try to punch it into the end zone. Obviously, his faith was rewarded.

Special teams had a bad day all around, beyond the Crosby meltdown. They allowed a long kick return, Corey Bojorquez had a lousy punt at the wrong time and the right side of the line on kicks continues to be a problem. I get it, there are a lot of moving pieces on this unit as guys come and go, but Maurice Drayton needs to figure things out quickly.

Beating a 3-1 team on the road without four of your eight best players is an accomplishment and they'll have to keep it up, because three of those guys aren't hitting the field anytime soon. Next up is a visit to Soldier Field against a Bears team brimming with confidence after a suprising win in Vegas.

It will be nice for Rodgers to get back to his home away from home. As you know, it can get rather windy. Probably best not to leave it up to the kicker next week.

 

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